Why diversity, equity and inclusion matter

“An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.”

Those words of wisdom from the late Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. hold special meaning for me in my role as president of the board of directors for NRECA, the trade association representing the nation’s more than 900 electric co-ops.

The cornerstone of my leadership role centers on America’s electric co-ops’ rapid shift to a connected technology-driven future, filled with tremendous economic advantages and opportunities.  I see diversity, equity and inclusion as mission-critical to ensure that no subset of member-owners is excluded from the “Brighter Future” that is already or soon will be within our grasp.

Today, many disparities persist between rural and urban America, and the same can be said for different ethnic and socioeconomic groups. In each case, the nation’s electric co-ops are well-positioned to lead change.

Electric co-op territories cover more than 90 percent of “persistent poverty counties” in the United States, according to Census data.  In these counties, co-ops serve an estimated 4.2 million people, with poverty rates ranging from 20 percent to more than 60 percent.

Open and voluntary membership is fundamental to the cooperative model.  America’s electric co-ops were built by and belong to the diverse communities and member-owners we serve.  Membership is open to everyone in our service territories, regardless of race, religion, age, disability, gender identity, language, political perspective, or socioeconomic status.

Electric co-ops can demonstrate this principle further by actively seeking diverse partners, a diverse workforce, and diverse boards of directors and by embracing diverse member perspectives.

Members’ economic participation is also a core principle. When electric co-ops began, our founders relied on members’ equity to make it happen. For them, equity may have represented their financial stake in the co-op.  For us today, it’s not just about dollars; it’s about opportunity for all.  It’s about being fair and impartial when engaging with, and making decisions for, our member-owners.  Under our guiding principles, economic disadvantages do not divide our communities.

It is our role to lead the way to more equitable economic opportunities.  That path encompasses efficiency programs, access to smart technologies and high-speed internet, and bringing people back to rural America.

Electric co-ops must also lead the charge to create programs and services to serve all  member-owners, especially those who have the highest energy burdens and the least means to bear them.  Many of the initiatives at Roanoke Electric, including Upgrade to $ave, Solar Share, and Roanoke Connect, strive to do just that.

I am fortunate to join and learn from other co-ops that are supporting initiatives that bolster equity and inclusion in their communities.  This interaction and collaboration opportunity is happening through NRECA’s Advancing Energy Access for All initiative and a new program designed to help cooperatives develop solar energy for their low- and moderate-income member-owners.

Co-op leaders know from experience that providing fair access to services for all people makes a tremendous difference in the quality of life in our communities.  As our industry rapidly transforms, we can enhance our member engagement efforts and improve our co-op’s financial performance when we ensure that all of our member-owners are a part of the transformation.

- Curtis Wynn, Roanoke Electric Co-op CEO and President, also serves as President of  Board of Directors for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.